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Frank's on line one, are you ready to sing?: When Phil Ramone needed partners to sing Duets with Frank Sinatra, he simply got on the phone. And spared Frank the inconvenience of singing person to person. Giles Smith reports

It probably won't surprise you that not one of the guest vocalists singing warmly with Frank Sinatra on his new album of duets actually met Frank at the time. Ever since Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney sang a hymn to racial togetherness from different sides of the Atlantic it's been appreciated that, if you get tricky with a tape recorder, intimacy on records is easily contrived.

But in a move which radically ups the stakes for face-free interfacing, on Duets those who couldn't make it to the studio sent their contributions digitally down the phone lines. For them, the project represented a chance not to meet Sinatra - and a chance not to do so in a studio of their own choosing. Tony Bennett sang his part in New York. Liza Minelli rang up from Brazil. Aretha Franklin at least made it to the Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, where Sinatra had recorded his parts. So did Luther Vandross.

But Frank? By then, he was long gone.

THE man who got the job producing Frank Sinatra's Duets album is Phil Ramone. No, he is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the Ramones. People do call him 'the Pope of Pop' though, and the chances are that you are hugely familiar with more than one record he has had a hand in.

He twiddled the knobs while Stan Getz and Astrid Gilberto recorded 'The Girl From Ipanema', while Peter Paul and Mary recorded 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', while Dionne Warwick recorded 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?'. He has produced Paul Simon ('Still Crazy After All These Years') and Barbra Streisand ('Evergreen'). In the Sony headquarters in Tokyo, the first CD ever pressed sits in a commemorative obelisk. It's a copy of Billy Joel's The Stranger, produced by Phil Ramone . . .

Ramone is a large man in a smart black suit and an open-neck shirt. He has wavy grey hair, big glasses and an avuncular air. You imagine him easily absorbing other people's temper tantrums, just smoothly talking on in his reasonable, measured, low growl. When he mentions Sinatra, his voice drops a further octave. 'You are talking about art,' he says at one point. Trying to compare Sinatra's old stuff with the new, he says: 'Early Picasso, later Picasso - where do you go?'

The first time Ramone heard about Duets was when Frank's people called him late last year to say they weren't guaranteeing anything, but Frank, 78, was considering doing some recordings. Then, this year, a string of meetings took place in February and March. Ramone remembers the first one, in Palm Beach, Florida, sitting round a table with Sinatra's manager Eliot Weisman, with some very important people in suits from EMI, and with Sinatra himself.

'He's a humble guy. With all of this facade, there is this other side of him. He said, 'Who do you think would want to sing with me?' We had the wish list, which we showed him. Then we talked tunes. Sinatra said, 'Y'know, the gals sing in a different key. But I can still go up there if I have to.' And he wasn't kidding. The majority of people as they get older would break down a half-key. He's going the other way.'

Ramone says it was obvious from early on that the duets would be mocked up. 'It was vital for us not to spend six months making this. He loves things that go quickly, that are to the point, that are performance-bound. I said, 'I know you don't want to get involved with the way rock'n'roll is about patching things up, doing things the way we do it now.' And he said, 'If you need a piece, I'll give you that section. But I don't see me singing later to a track. It's not going to happen.' So, the rules were different.'

Ramone spent a month on arrangements (mostly working from the Nelson Riddle originals) and busily shopped around for singing partners. Luther Vandross wanted 'The Lady is a Tramp'. Aretha Franklin said she would like to do 'Where or When', but she took 'What Now My Love'. And U2's Bono agreed to sit in on 'I've Got You Under My Skin' - the track most guaranteed to wind up Sinatra purists, not least because of Bono's cheekiness with the lyric.

'Calling him 'blue eyes' is OK. But everyone was a little nervous, including Bono, about singing the line, 'Don't you know, you old fool . . .' But Frank understands that. He's not a humourless man.'

They chose to record Sinatra at Capitol Records Studio A, Los Angeles for nostalgic reasons: when that studio opened in 1956, Sinatra was the first artist to work there. Now he was back, in front of an orchestra, but this time singing from song sheets which had been highlighted to indicate the lines he might think about leaving out - the gaps for his as yet non-existent partners to fill.

'We had separated him from the band in the beginning - not extremely, but with enough separaters and bits of plexiglass and stuff and he was very uncomfortable. He said, 'I wanna be with the guys.' The only thing to do was to put him out in the middle of the room. We built a little platform, nice little stage, nothing fancy. Put his orchestral monitor on it so he could feel the pressure. I mean, he's been performing live all this time. Earphones were out, that's not comfortable. We put Bill Miller in front of him, so he could tease him, bust him. Bill's been with him 40 years . . .

'Ordinarily, I would use two mikes on him - one above, one below. But he wasn't comfortable, so I got him a stool and a hand-mike. It's a way in which I've recorded Jagger and Bono. It's not going to win any audio awards. But he's the most comfortable with that. He did nine songs one night, straight. Three of the tracks that made it to the album are Take Ones.'

The guest singers came in one at a time - either that, or they phoned. 'Most of the time, you would rather they were there in person. But if the schedules don't allow . . .' With the phoners, Ramone employed the Entertainment Digital Network system, partly developed by George Lucas's Skywalker Sound studio in northern California. Ramone first used it while recording Gloria Estefan's forthcoming Christmas album. While backing singers were recording their parts in Hollywood, Estefan phoned a vocal in from her home studio in Miami. Advances in fibre optics have reduced phone-line delay to an imperceptible 80 milliseconds. Obviously, this is not necessarily something you can try at home with your old BT Trimfone; Ramone got EMI to install the pricey decoding equipment. And the phone bills must be huge. But at least it makes life interesting for Ramone's receptionist. ('Mr Ramone? I have a brass section for you on line one.')

Ramone is a big believer in EDNET. He says it means no more hefty travel expenses, no more risking master tapes in the post, and no more hanging around. 'Say there's a zydeco guy in New Orleans, or BB King sitting in Chicago. Now you can say, 'I desperately would love for you to do this solo - what's your afternoon like?' It's going to change the world around.'

And as for Sinatra, he likes what came out in his absence. 'Somebody told me that he played it at the beach the other day,' says Ramone. 'Cranked it up. Looked and acted 20 years younger.'

'Duets' is released on Monday

(Photograph omitted)